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The debut of Omar, a resolutely American opera : NPR


Tenor Jamez McCorkle, who made his debut in the opera’s title role Omarby Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, which had its world premiere on May 27 in Charleston, SC at the Spoleto Festival USA.

Leigh Webber/Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA


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The debut of Omar, a resolutely American opera : NPR

Tenor Jamez McCorkle, who made his debut in the opera’s title role Omarby Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, which had its world premiere on May 27 in Charleston, SC at the Spoleto Festival USA.

Leigh Webber/Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

A new opera tells the true story of a slave kidnapped from his home in present-day Senegal and trafficked to South Carolina. The opera premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA, less than a mile down the road from where the man was sold and after which he spent five decades on plantations, including the one where he wrote his autobiography – the only known and surviving slave account written in Arabic.

Julie, an enslaved black woman, is a fictional character that Rhiannon Giddens created for this opera. When Julie first met the newly enslaved man, she later tells her, he strongly reminded her of someone else: “My daddy wore a cap like yours,” she sings. She refers to the kufi worn by many Muslim and African Diaspora men.

The Opera Omar is a largely American story. But the story is particularly heavy and close in Charleston, South Carolina, where the opera debuted in late May. The real man this opera is based on, Omar Ibn Said, was a Muslim who became a slave in Charleston, like about 40% of other Africans who were forced to go to North America. Said then spent five decades on a plantation in Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he wrote his autobiography – the only known surviving slave account written in Arabic.

“It was shocking,” Giddens says on learning of Said’s autobiography, “Someone or an event that comes from my home country that is huge, such a huge story. And I’ve never heard that story , having lived most of my life in North Carolina.” Trained in college as an opera singer, Giddens is best known as an American-born musician, singer, and songwriter who wields a mean banjo and makes her viola sing. More than that, she says, “I guess I’m looking for sloppy stories to tell.”


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Said was a well-educated Fulani, one of the largest groups of people scattered across the Sahel and West Africa, and had studied the Quran intensely. At 37, he was captured during a war and sold into slavery. He then endured the Middle Passage on what he called “the great sea”.

Saïd escaped his first slaver, but was again captured in North Carolina. While imprisoned there, he began writing on the walls in Arabic, the language of the Quran. His Arabic literacy and religious piety became objects of fascination for his second owner, a plantation owner named Jim Owen whose brother John became Governor of North Carolina.

While enslaved in Fayetteville, Said appears to have converted to Christianity. And he wrote his autobiography at the request of its owner, says Michael Abels, who co-composed the opera with Giddens. Best known for his film scores get out and WeAbels provided Omar its lush orchestrations.

“On the one hand, while they respected his abilities,” notes Abels, “they certainly had no intention of ending his slavery as a result of this. They were more interested in having him perform and convert him to Christianity to make them feel better.”

Ala Alryyes is a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York. He also translated the autobiography of the real Omar Ibn Said from Arabic into English – and was hired as an adviser on the opera project. He says Said’s work shows the lie that enslaved Africans were ignorant, illiterate and in need of conversion.

“It demonstrates a cultural background and literacy that a slave brought with him to the United States that he didn’t really acquire here,” Alryyes said. “Our understanding of American slavery has been based on the United States and ignores the context these slaves brought with them from Africa, whether they were Muslims or not, whether they spoke Arabic or other languages. It opens our eyes to the fact that their cultures have obviously been lost in a few generations.”

The debut of Omar, a resolutely American opera : NPR

The cast of Omar performs a scene on the Middle Passage at the opera’s premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA on May 27 in Charleston, SC

Leigh Webber/Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA


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Leigh Webber/Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

The debut of Omar, a resolutely American opera : NPR

The cast of Omar performs a scene on the Middle Passage at the opera’s premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA on May 27 in Charleston, SC

Leigh Webber/Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

Said’s autobiography inspired the opera, explains Michael Abels. “The opera tells the story of his journey – but also his spiritual journey as he faced the challenges of slavery and the challenge of being asked to give up his spiritual identity as well as his freedom,” he said. “And when you think about what’s not said – that’s what’s powerful about it, what are the things that stick around as clues that show you what it’s like to have your every move watched. , to need to tell your story in a way that will Must be approved.”

Hussein Rashid is an academic specializing in Muslims in American popular culture. Like Alryyes, he was an advisor on this opera. Rashid says that in his autobiography and other writings, Omar Ibn Said offers coded language and certainly ambiguity in his actual beliefs. Rashid points to a chapter of the Quran that Said cites in the autobiography that discusses the power and sovereignty of God: Surat al-Mulk.

“The way I understand this, and the way several other scholars understand it,” Rashid explains, “Is it Omar talking about being enslaved, acknowledging that it’s other human beings who are playing power, play at having sovereignty, play at having authority over other human beings. And he says, “No, you don’t really know what power is, you don’t know what sovereignty is, you don’t don’t know where my allegiance is.” And I think that’s really spiritual food for Omar.”

Omar’s quest to preserve himself when all forces conspired to take away everything that belonged to him is at the heart of this project, explains the opera’s director, Kaneza Schaal.

“I’m interested in the language contest and Omar’s life – the spiritual languages, the spoken languages, the material languages, the cultural languages ​​- and ultimately how he ends up holding all of those languages ​​simultaneously,” she says.

The creative team cleverly interpreted these interweavings of language and belief on the opera stage. Said’s manuscripts in Arabic and English are projected on stage; the characters in the opera literally wear different languages ​​on their clothes.


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Rhiannon Giddens says Said’s life story also presented many creative opportunities to flow between musical languages. Giddens composed most of the music for Omar banjo and brought his deep knowledge of folk music to opera. But the music also metamorphoses and transforms to meet the characters – in scenes set in Senegal and in Saïd’s imagination, a harp evokes a West African cora, for example, while the music for The White Slave Owners and The Slave Auctioneer resounds in resounding, declarative Western harmonies and cadences. The production vocalists praised Giddens and Abels for writing tunes and choral sections that were a joy to perform.

“Listen, I’m a banjo player,” Giddens says. “If someone said, ‘Oh your opera is accessible, I’m like, ‘That’s the greatest compliment ever!’ What I do is bring those connections to deep and deep vernacular and folk traditions of American culture. I really hope it also adds to the narrative of who can be called a composer, who can create these large-scale works.”

The opera stage is a space that still often overlooks black creators and stories of the black experience. Giddens hopes that Omar forms a path – and it looks like Giddens has succeeded. Omar is already scheduled to be staged at other opera companies across the United States, including Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Chapel Hill, North Carolina – near where the real Omar Ibn Said was enslaved for 50 years.

Said died in 1863, aged 93, in the midst of the Civil War, and was buried on one of Owen’s plantations. There is no marker for his grave. There is, however, a mosque in Fayetteville that bears his name: the Masjid Omar Ibn Sayyid.


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